Chamberlain or Churchill

Can Obama Change?

Critics are calling the botched health-care reform rollout Obama’s Katrina. The truth is he has one year to save his presidency. Will he be the Chamberlain or the Churchill?

Ron Brownstein pretty well nails it today:

For decades, Democratic strategists have viewed universal health care as their best opportunity to reverse the doubt among many voters, especially whites, that government programs can tangibly benefit their families. Now the catastrophic rollout of the health law threatens instead to reinforce those doubts. That outcome could threaten Democratic priorities for years.

He points to exit polls from Virginia last week, when 52 percent of white voters said they opposed the law. He then notes that the odds have just gone way up that the 2016 election will be a referendum on the health-care law and on the efficacy of government in general. Well, 2016 is a long way away--I mean, remember: Just three weeks ago, it was the Republicans, post-shutdown, who were in total disarray! But Brownstein might end up being right. Now you know why Bill Clinton said what he said.

The problem is compounded by the fact that whatever fix Congress passes runs the risks of making things substantively worse, because, as I'm sure you know by now, if insurers are permitted to continue to carry customers on plan that don't meet the ACA's standards, that will undercut the whole reform, because healthy people will buy those cheaper plans and the new plans will be left to the sick, and they'll be more expensive as a result.

The Republican plan from Congressman Fred Upton would take matters one step further. It wouldn't merely continue the grandfathering in of sub-ACA plans for people who had to buy insurance themselves and had done so before Oct. 1; it would allow insurers to continue to sell new sub-ACA plans througout 2014. That really is designed to mess up the law. It's not going anywhere in Harry Reid's Senate, but right now it's hard guess what might pass both houses and be acceptable to Obama.

I still say supporters of the law shouldn't panic. It could be that by next March 31, when enrollment ends, things have gone from terrible to okay. But for that to happen, Obama has to become something he's never been--a hands-on manager. And this has to be the focus of, I don't know, 60 percent of his energy. He needs to be engaged and deep in the weeds every day. If he doesn't know about content management systems and bandwidth, he'd better learn.

I've always believed that the CEO of General Motors ought to know how to do an oil change. On the same theory, Obama needs to want to learn about how websites work on the front end and back end. Don't tell me this is below the president's pay grade. He has to do these things to save his presidency and to save, at least in the short term, liberalism.

And he needs to ride herd on his people and get in their faces and asked them pointed questions and demand responsive and fast answers. This is not how he has conceived his job up to now. But he needs to be aware that his job, as a result of this massive cock-up, has changed definitionally, just as Neville Chamberlain's job changed when the war started. The war was the war; everything else was secondary. Same thing here. Salvaging health care is far and away the number one job of the remaining years of his presidency. My historical analogy, I am well aware, is not terribly comforting.

Brownstein quotes one academic as saying that this is the worst government roll-out in 60 years, when the ballistic missile program debuted with a serious of runway catastrophes. Sixty years! And it happened, let's face it--he faced it yesterday at his news conference--because he wasn't on top of things the way he was supposed to be.

By the way, one can hold this position and be mad at Obama about this and still also be mad about how the Republicans have tried to sabotage the law. They undeniably have. They're like the kid who puts antifreeze in the gas tank and then says see, I told you that car wouldn't run. They're total bad faith actors. For them and their followers to sit back and say that the problems are all Obama's fault is dishonest and absurd.

However, it's not as if their opposition to making the thing work was unknown. And the website problems and the promise about no cancellations are Obama's fault, not theirs. He has probably about a year to go from being the ACA's Chamberlain to its Churchill, and he'd better take it more seriously than he's ever taken anything.